CABARET / Only because of his accent, of course

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The Independent Culture
HE'S s'wonderful. He's s'marvellous. And he's standing five yards away brimming with Gallic charm. The bright blue eyes are fighting it out with the gleaming white teeth for a claim on our attention. (The eyes have it.) Here is the man with the strongest smile muscles in showbusiness: Sacha Distel, the Monsieur Nice Guy of Pop.

He finishes the opening number, raises his eyebrows, gives a coltish swivel either side of the microphone, and a sprightly 'Bon soir'. Oh God. My neighbour, a young woman half his age, wants him just for one night.

He's not completely perfect. When he is singing, and he sticks his arms out, beseechingly, it looks as if he's testing the sleeve-lengths of his new tuxedo. The closely blow-dried hair brings to mind that other self-conscious roue, Lovejoy. He could refer a little less, too, to things like his charm, his fame, the girls he's known (yes, we remember Brigitte Bardot) and life in St Tropez.

He's glad, he says, the audience haven't forgotten him. They would be pretty absent- minded if they had: forking out pounds 45 a head for cabaret and dinner (not including wine) for . . . oh, God, what was the guy's name? But the thought leads him neatly into 'As Time Goes By', and there, of course, 'a keeesss is just a keeesss' (though not with you, Sacha, surely: one keeesss and the earth ought to move). He's cooing, he's throaty, he's nasal, and then he swoops, oh so seductively, from a high note to a low one, filling out the lower range with a warmth that's as dependable as an electric blanket.

He sings the first bit of 'Song Sung Blue' in English, then the next bit in French. It works well. We get to hear what the words mean and then we get to hear them sounding a good deal sexier than they otherwise would. There's a soft croakiness, an intimate roll of the Rs and a wistful fade. The elderly woman in front has started rocking gently in her seat.

But Distel has stopped - he wants us to join in. 'Song Sung Blue' is turning into 'Sing-Song Blue', and here we are, metropolitan sophisticates in the Green Room at the Cafe Royal, clapping our hands and clicking our fingers to a number by Neil Diamond. The shame of it. But there's no refusing this guy: he should be selling life insurance. Distel switches to the jazz guitar (which is how it all started, in 1948, when he was 15). His playing is as precisely controlled as his singing. Unfortunately, on this, the first night, the air conditioning is up a little high and 'my fingers are like ice'.

He moves on to a medley of Maurice Chevalier songs, putting on a boater, sticking out his chin, and thanking heaven for little girls. As a laugh, he does his own version of Prince's recent No 1 hit 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World', introducing it 'from one heart- throb to another'. His heart throbs a little faster when the words go and he has to grab the music sheet from the top of the piano. 'I didn't give myself a chance,' he smiles. 'I picked the song up this morning.'

He's on safer ground with 'Some Enchanted Evening' (which he must have picked up quite a few years ago, along with a lot of other enchanting experiences). Now the audience can relax, shut their eyes and let their minds wander . . . across shagpile carpets, past David Hamilton posters and bottles of cheap beaujolais and out into the meadows of poppies. With Sacha Distel the world is a sweet, endless, soft- focus summer. There's rapturous applause. 'It's only because of my French accent, of course,' he says. Well, if he'd come from Birmingham the act would have to be different.

His unfractured confidence fills the room. There's nothing to worry about here, for Distel wears his yearning lightly. He delivers a quick, varied set and then pulls out the stops with the oozing repetitions of 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' and the silky-toned deliberateness of his own hit 'La belle vie'. Distel has really got to the elderly woman in the seat in front of me. She slips her arm through that of her husband, but the air conditioning, perhaps, is getting to him, and he pretends he hasn't noticed.

Sacha Distel continues at the

Cafe Royal, W1 (071-437 9090), tomorrow to Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

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